Avoiding the Temptation to Systematize

Increasing complexity produces diminishing returns…even in fighting arts

By John Clements

A recent discussion among a few ARMA members on the topic of modern conceptualizations of learning and practice produced a profound insight into the revival of this craft. While our own Study Approach and Training Methodology in this craft was never in doubt, the matter in question that came up was that of how to best formulate ways of presenting it to modern practitioners. People have a need healthy to have the overwhelming amount of source material be digestible. How then do we make it more approachable, less alien, and easier to grasp?  
I forcefully argued that we must avoid superimposing an artificial program on top of the Art (been there, done that). In our effort to understand it and rebuild it now for modern practice such a structure may seem to make sense and be desirable, but it is really in the opposite direction from where we now find ourselves with our recent insights. As I declared to everyone present, I see such a way of thinking as a serious problem. I consider such an outlook as ultimately a major threat to our effort at accurate interpretation and authentic reconstruction.
I tried to explain that attempts to compartmentalize or reformulate the craft in order to make it more digestible, though well-meaning, were counter-productive to our goal and doomed to failure. I myself followed such a philosophy of "systematizing modern formulations" of historical fencing for many years (just look at my first two books or my earliest class content and seminar curricula). From my own personal experiences I firmly believe that such an approach unnecessarily technicalizes and overly complicates this subject.  I have since come to not only reject it but to now argue passionately against it. I am completely convinced that in the long run such attempts add an unneeded layer of jargon and modern conceptions onto what should be viewed contextually and holistically. 
I do believe such effort was a necessary (and perhaps unavoidable) process on our path of exploration and reconstruction. But as our investigation has progressed it is clear it is a course that in hindsight can now be set aside. There is no need to repeat it. Rather than helping us with our understanding of the Medieval mindset or the Renaissance spirit of the warriors who produced the source teachings, it dilutes and clouds it.  Instead of aiding our acquisition of core movements and fundamental fighting actions, it focuses our mind on trying to relate them to something never a part of the original, to something that is artificial and out of place.
At a time when we are just now enjoying the simplicity, beauty, and wonder of the craft and only now is it becoming apparent just how insightfully structured the source teachings are, we must avoid more than ever the temptation to restructure it with modern ideas, acronyms, borrowed notions, and reconceived vocabulary. It does not help us utilize the terminology of the sources in applying their principles and concepts and techniques if we are instead trying to force our own rewrite onto it in hope that it will better fit our modern mindset and modern post-Enlightenment reflex to reformulate things or divide them into categories, tiers, and modules.
I have come to reject such an approach, and instead fully embrace the far more organic and holistic understanding of the message the historical masters presented in their source teachings. It is one I implore every serious student of the craft to adopt. Holistic not compartmentalized. Simplified not technicalized. Organic not artificial.
We therefore must consciously reject any desire, no matter how well-intentioned or carefully conceived, to make it something that modern people can better “related to.”  We are taught to compartmentalize things to think more rationally today. Yet such a rational, empirical approach only goes so far in fighting and in learning a combat Art---and the historical masters surely knew. This is surely why they presented their lessons in careful gems of wisdom.  This is vital understanding if we are intending to revive the old art, not make up our own new one.
Where before we use to teach people to train in order to go learn the Art, we now can teach people the Art and then let them go train in it.  Where we once thought of the source historical as being poorly conceived, poorly structured, and incomplete, this is no longer the came. Indeed, the argument can be mad that they are in fact presented in a structured in the only way that combatives really can be---holistically. We don’t need to put it all into a modern perspective to understand it. We therefore do not need to “translate” their teachings with a matrix derived from modern knife-fighting, Asian styles, or paramilitary thinking and law-enforcement systems.
We already use plenty of modern terms of convenience in order to explain and practice it. Doing this is not about adding more and more layers or introducing new things that aren’t there (which is what many modern practitioners and groups mistakenly end up doing). A great deal of wisdom in this is knowing what to avoid doing ---even as you can’t possibly teach everything not to do (the list would be infinite!).  There is no question that in creating a modern curricula with modern practice methods there have certainly been many conceptions that have proved useful in the formation of our understanding. That a student can benefit from having at their convenience certain modern drills and exercise which have proved useful in reconstituting the Art is not in dispute. Even as a certain level of structure (restructure) is necessary to make the craft practicable for our modern psyches and relevant to our modern lives, this does not mean we must or should re-label, re-conceive, or rewrite any of it ---especially at a time when we are just beginning to really grasp the subtlety and ingenuity of the source material. Though we possess the modern knowledge to dissect and analyze what the past Masters once understood, we must not try to re-engineer their knowledge. Instead, we must work hard to redevelop skill in their wisdom as they presented it.  Anything else is antithetical to the very idea of reconstruction through effort at interpretation-application.
We must resist the impulse to divide up the source material, to re-systematize it by assembling a new program on top of the old methods. We must avoid trying to reconcile it with terms and elements of modern systems.  The solution is obvious: don’t try to add more structure, don’t try to create new principles and concepts, just embrace theirs, learn them and use them. Simplify. Form in fighting action comes from function, not from performing exercises and patterned movement. And our Art contains a cultural component that involves no ritual, no metaphysics, and no display. In the famous words of George Silver, from his 1599, Paradoxes of Defence, where he criticized fencing with the dueling rapier for its narrow self-defense application: “There is no manner of teaching comparable to the old ancient teaching, that is, first their quarters, then their wards, blows, thrusts, and breaking of thrusts, then their closes and grips, striking with the hilts, daggers, bucklers, wrestlings, striking with the foot or knee in the coddes, and all these are safely defended in learning perfectly of the grips.”  That says it all.
As has been said before, the source works do not reveal much about how they actually taught and learned the craft.  To train in it today we have thus tried to help people learn by offering things we have discerned as useful, such as certain drills and exercises and sparring.  In doing this, we must avoid the yearning some may discover for wanting such activity to be an end in itself, or practice of them as a measure of progress, instead of skill in the Art being the objective.
All questions about how to learn and how to practice or train that we thought were absent from the historical sources are really there---when we know where and how to look for them. They can be followed once again by those who understand.  I believe I see things with such clarity now that I am more passionate than ever about the need to focus on the immediacy of the Art as being simple. It’s about acting with energy in violent encounters. It’s about the middle timing, leverage, range, simple motion, striking angles, and deflecting actions, etc.  I feel absolutely convinced now that the source material as relayed in the original teachings must be kept as natural, self-contained, and undiluted as possible. This is the best way for us to internalize these fighting arts and apply the fundamental elements they consist of. It is not a matter of being some purist, it doesn't mean we must ignore insights we might have form modern combat experiences either.  It is simply a matter of achieving a deeper appreciation of the sources and a higher understanding of their teachings so that their ingenuity and virtue can be shared with others. 

Following this reasoning, the obvious question then becomes, “But what should we learn and how should we teach it?” The answer should be self-evident: the historical sources. There is no need for injecting anything else. Can anyone today devise superior modern concepts for Indes or Fuehlen or Krieg or Volarica or Coverta or Mezzani, for example? The very conclusion I have reached through my studies (itself the content of our ARMA curricula) consists entirely of these simple things (and our Armatura---historically derived drills and exercises---directly embrace and augment the principles, concepts, and techniques from the source works.) The challenge for us is only to master the Art and convey it. To do this we must first know it. And to teach it effectively we must of course have the physical proficiency to demonstrate its martial veracity.

I am now positive that, though well-intentioned, attempts to simplify the seeming complexity of the source teachings results not in “distilling its knowledge” but losing it amidst contemporary pedagogic ideas and terminology. Though we may believe that by “quantifying” things via formulations of modern systemization we are making them “accessible,” in the process the attempt dissolves the central value of the source material along with the possibility of appreciating the very utility by which it was originally presented.

Simply put, the issue is one of avoiding over-analysis and endless theorizing with a modern mindset. Remember what we are told of the simplicity of the Art:  Master Liechtenauer’s…“hidden and secret words of the Charter” are set down so “everyone is able to learn and understand them well, who can otherwise fight.” - Hanko Döbringer, 1389.  Master Liechtenauer’s teachings were “thus clarified and laid out” in words such that “any man may comprehend and understand those well, so he can fight another.” - Peter von Danzig, c.1440. As has been pointed out, George Silver himself wrote: “…because men desire to find a true defence for themselves in their fight, therefore they seek it diligently, nature having taught us to defend ourselves, and the Art teaching us how...”

October 2008


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